An audit has revealed that beach sand stocks kept under lock and key have been smuggled out.
An inspection carried out by the Thiruchendur Revenue Divisional Officer (RDO) in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi district has revealed that illegal mining of beach sand is taking place, while beach sand mineral stocks sealed on Madras High Court’s order have been transported “illegally”.
In a report to the Thoothukudi district collector, RDO D Dhanapriya, said that the inspection was carried out to audit the stocks kept under lock and key following complaints of illegal mining and utilisation of the sealed beach sand minerals stocks. Swarajya has a copy of the RDO report.
The RDO report pinpointed Beach Minerals Company (BMC) located at Kuttam village in Radhapuram taluk in the district of indulging in these “illegal activities”.
A special team was formed to inspect the sealed stocks and it carried out an audit on 6 May at BMC warehouses in four blocks.
Besides these four blocks, the minerals had also been stocked separately in 340 bags.
The RDO found sharp differences in the stocks inspected on 6 May this year compared with the stocks reported by another special inspection team on 16 May 2017. The May 2017 inspection was carried out on the orders of the Madras High Court by Indian Administrative Service (IAS) official Satyabrata Sahoo.
The RDO reported that between 2017 and now, 45 bags containing garnet mined from beach sand were missing, besides 637 bags of ilmenite, 617 bags of mined sand totalling 1,299 bags.
The team also found that recently, sand had been mined over an area of 2.54 hectares some 300 metres away from the company, which also dug a six feet deep quarry.
The RDO team also inspected the record books of BMC and found that of the 69 bags of ilmenite stocks, 24 had been sent out. The record book also revealed the unit had functioned at least until 23 October 2018.
The RDO reported that the company had flouted the law by using the beach sand minerals without permission when it had been sealed by the Madras High Court. BMC had also illegally mined beach sand for minerals and dispatched beach sand minerals without valid permission.
A legal expert involved in the case said that BMC could now attract contempt of court since it had tampered sealed stocks.
The Beach Sand Minerals Case
In February last year, the Centre gazetted a notification banning private companies from mining beach sand for rare earth minerals like ilmenite, rutile, leucoxene (that bear titanium minerals), zircon, garnet, sillimanite and monazite (which yields uranium and thorium).
The notification said the threshold limit for presence of such minerals will be zero per cent from the earlier 0.75 per cent. This basically meant no mining of beach sand could be done to extract rare earth minerals.
The Centre’s notification was an extension of a ban on export of sand minerals imposed in August 2018 through the Directorate-General of Foreign Trade. The August 2018 notification said only government-owned Indian Rare Earths Limited can export the minerals derived from beach sand.
The February 2019 notification was a fallout of an order by Madras High Court, which said the Union Government “shall take effective steps as a policy decision and regulate the process of mining and restrict the license in respect of monazite”.
Beach sand mining became a controversy after G Victor Rajamanickam, who holds a PhD in mining geology, filed a writ petition in the Madras High Court alleging illegal mining and government officials’ support to such activities.
The petition came up for hearing in 2015 but towards the end of that year, Rajamanickam told the court he wanted to withdraw his petition.
The High Court refused to allow his plea and converted it into a suo motu public interest litigation. Since then, the case is being heard by the court until now.
The High Court appointed senior advocate V Suresh as the amicus curiae to help the court and asked him to submit a status report.
The amicus curiae reported rampant illegal mining and transportation of beach sand even after the state government banned mining in September 2013.
In particular, the miners continued to export on the ground saying that only mining was banned and not exports. They claimed that the exports were from the stocks they had accumulated after mining the beach sand.
The amicus curiae said some 9.65 lakh tonnes of minerals transported by one of the mining firms, V V Minerals, were illegal.
Besides V V Mineral, other private miners such as Transworld Garnet India Private Limited, Beach Minerals Sand Company and Indian Ocean Garnet Sands group had illegally transported minerals such as garnet, ilmenite and zircon, rutile, sillimanite and leucoxene.
The amicus curiae feared that though monazite could not be exported by private miners, it could have been shipped in some other form. He said the miners had taken advantage of various court rulings to continue illegal mining, processing, transportation and exports.
Privately, fears were expressed that these monazite tails could have found their way in the garb of garnet to North Korea though no concrete proof has emerged.
The loss to the government on account of the illegal mining of sand is estimated to be thousands of crores of rupees since the year 2000.
The High Court also appointed a committee under Sahoo to inspect the mined sand stocks with the miners and submit a report on the presence of radioactive minerals in them.
Sahoo reported that the mined sand contained minerals beyond permissible limits. He said 118 of the 220 samples his team examined, contained more than the permitted level of 0.25 per cent monazite allowed by the Department of Atomic Energy.
The Sahoo panel also found a lower percentage of monazite in the tailings in some beach sand stocks, suspecting that the mineral could have been taken out from the stocks and transported.
Private miners, especially V V Minerals, have termed the findings as biased.
These series of actions have halted beach sand mining and transportation of minerals.
This resulted in countries such as the United States, South Africa, Germany and Australia expressing concern as these rare minerals, particularly garnet, is used in making abrasives for defence products such as military hardware and weapons.